I’ve been to Vietnam many times and on my last trip, I spent a week in Hanoi discovering not only its famous attractions but also its local hidden gems. Although my first impressions of Hanoi weren’t that great, after a week of being there, I have become more of a fan. In fact, I now consider it one of my favourite Southeast Asian cities and I’m thinking of coming back soon.
Hanoi’s streets may be wildly chaotic, but if you look beyond the busy crowd and the hundreds of motorbikes zooming around, you’ll realize that Hanoi has actually a different charm. I love that it’s a mix of old and new. Visiting the city is like stepping back in time, especially at the Old Quarter where French colonial buildings and ancient old temples line its busy streets. In the midst of this, the city is surrounded by modern buildings and dominating skyscrapers and it’s clear to see that Hanoi is fast becoming one of Asia’s modern cosmopolitan cities.
On my third day in Hanoi, I decided to venture off the beaten path and discovered its hidden gems, away from the busy tourist crowd. Here’s how to explore Hanoi like a local.
1. Explore the Old Quarter Early In the Morning
The Old Quarter is perhaps the busiest part of Hanoi and if it’s your first time in the city, you will most likely be spending most of your time here. Most of the city’s famous attractions are within easy reach from here and there are plenty of budget hotels in the area as well. Like everyone else, I’ve decided to stay in this part of Hanoi despite the traffic and the chaos. Thankfully, a local vendor told me that the best way to explore this part of the city is early in the morning, where most tourists are still in bed after a night of drinking.
So as early as 5 AM, I ventured down the streets of the Old Quarter. Walking into the nooks and crannies, I’ve witnessed how the locals go about their morning routine. I’ve seen local vendors setting up their stall and a group of locals quietly lining for a piping hot bowl of Pho for breakfast. Upon reaching the Hoan Kiem Lake, I joined the crowds of exercise enthusiasts who are gathered near the lake dancing to the beat of local songs being played through loudspeakers at the background.
2. Join the Flag Raising Ceremony at the Ba Dinh Square
From the Hoan Kiem Lake, I took a cyclo towards the Ba Dinh Square and arrived just in time for the flag-raising ceremony. The Ba Dinh Square is just outside the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Although the mausoleum is not top-secret as it’s a popular Hanoi attraction where President Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed corpse is kept, not many tourists are aware of the flag-raising ceremony that’s happening every 6 AM at the square. In fact, I didn’t notice any other tourists at the ceremony on that day!
3. Walk along the Long Bien Bridge
The Long Bien Bridge is a famous bridge in Hanoi designed by the famous French engineer, Gustave Eiffel, who was also behind the Eiffel tower. Yet, despite the bridge being famous, only a few tourists would venture into this 100-year old bridge because it’s already been dilapidated and is currently undergoing reconstruction. But this did not stop me from exploring the bridge and I was glad I went there. Walking into the bridge may not be for the fainthearted, but I must say it’s certainly one of the most exciting experiences I had in Hanoi.
4. Wander Around the Banana Island
Just after I crossed the Long Bien Bridge, I walked a few more steps until I reach the so-called Banana Island. This place is known locally as the Bãi Giữa, which literally means the Middle Island. But the place is called Banana Island because of the massive plantation of bananas in the area. I was surprised at how quiet this place is, even though it’s not too far from the busy streets of Hanoi.
I felt a sense of calmness as I explored this little hidden paradise. The chattering sea of locals and zooming motorbikes were replaced by the rustling sound of the banana leaves beneath my feet as I wandered through the place.
5. Visit the Longest Mosaic Mural Wall
On the following day, I hopped on a motorbike taxi to travel to the Tay Ho District, where the world’s longest mosaic mural walls are located. The Hanoi Ceramic Mosaic Mural is about 30 minutes away from the city centre of Hanoi and it’s surprising to know that not a lot of tourists would venture into this place. The ceramic mural is very colourful and stunning and is about 6.5 km long. It snakes along the Red River dike, at the eastern portion of the Old Quarter.
6. Check out the Largest Freshwater Lake
The Tay Ho District is also home to the West Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Hanoi. This massive body of water has a circumference of 17 km and has plenty of quiet spots, including a massive botanical garden. The lake is truly beautiful and is much quieter than the more popular Hoan Kiem Lake that’s at the Old Quarter. After spending some time at the botanical garden,
I went to the Tran Quoc Pagoda just beside the lake. This 6th-century pagoda is one of Vietnam’s oldest temples and was built by King Ly Nam De. I spent the rest of the day at the West Lake watching locals going about their day-to-day life while enjoying the calm and serene surroundings before going back to the busy streets of the Old Quarter.
7. Witness How Locals Live By the Train Tracks of the Train Street
Train Street in Hanoi is a residential street where locals live just a few inches away from the train tracks. It’s absolutely amazing to watch how locals would prepare for an upcoming train. The street is very narrow that they must ensure all their belongings and kids are inside the house when a train is about to pass. This place is just within the Old Quarter, between the streets of Lê Duẩn and Khâm Thin. It’s such a unique place to witness most especially when a speeding train is passing through!
8. Explore the Quang Ban Flower Market
Visiting a local market in Hanoi is a great way to witness how locals go about their daily life. In fact, the market is a way of life in this part of the world. I’ve been to quite a few markets in Hanoi, including the weekend market at the Old Quarter, which is teeming with local vendors selling souvenir items and other tourist traps. I want a more authentic experience so I decided to visit the Quang Ban flower market.
This market is in the Tay Ho district and a bit far away from Hanoi’s city centre. Yet, it’s definitely worth a visit. Here, locals sell all kinds of fresh flowers gathered from the various places in Vietnam. I love that it’s bursting with so many colours. The large display of colourful flowers is a joy to watch, from sunflower, roses, daisies, and several other beautiful flowers that I can’t identify.
A local vendor told me that the best time to visit this flower market is during the local Tet festival where locals would flock to the place to buy an abundance of flowers that they will use to decorate their house.
9. Learn Pottery at Bat Trang Pottery Village
Bat Trang is an old pottery village in the Gia Lâm district of Hanoi. It’s an area that is said to be rich in clay, which explains the thriving pottery industry of the place. I decided to join one of the pottery workshops at the Bat Trang village and it was a truly fun experience. Aside from learning a few things about pottery, I’ve also learned a bit of history about the ancient village and the locals’ way of life there.
In my many years of travelling, I realized that the best way to learn about a place is by immersing yourself in the local culture and understanding how locals go about their daily life. So if you are planning a trip to Hanoi soon and wanted to learn more about the place, ditch your travel guide, venture off the beaten path, and spend as much time as you can discovering how the locals live. Explore Hanoi like a local.